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Re­searchers have dis­cov­ered how the link be­tween the lev­els of stress hor­mones a foe­tus

is ex­posed to in the womb and the de­vel­op­ment of mood dis­or­ders like anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion in later life, might be con­trolled in the body. We’ve known for some time that a foe­tus’ ex­pe­ri­ences in the womb can have long-last­ing ef­fects on phys­i­cal and men­tal health. This so-called ‘foetal pro­gram­ming’ is partly due to nat­u­rally pro­duced stress hor­mones in the mother (called glu­co­cor­ti­coids). The most im­por­tant stress hor­mone is cor­ti­sol, which can stunt growth, al­ter the tim­ing of tis­sue growth, and have var­i­ous other long-last­ing ef­fects. Stress or emo­tional trauma in an ex­pec­tant mother in­creases her cor­ti­sol lev­els, po­ten­tially harm­ing the de­vel­op­ing baby. Pro­fes­sor Me­gan Holmes re­vealed at the con­fer­ence

that, to­gether with col­leagues at the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, she has dis­cov­ered a way the foetal brain pro­tects it­self against stress hor­mones be­fore they can cause harm. They have found an en­zyme in the pla­centa and in foetal brains (called 11β-HSD2) that ap­pears to act as a pro­tec­tive bar­rier. By breed­ing mice lack­ing 11β-HSD2, Holmes saw that foe­tuses ex­posed to high lev­els of stress hor­mones were par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to re­duced growth and (mouse) mood dis­or­ders. With­out this en­zyme, the mother’s pla­centa was smaller and didn’t trans­port nu­tri­ents ef­fi­ciently. Pro­fes­sor Holmes thinks this find­ing may of­fer clues for de­vel­op­ing med­i­ca­tions to pro­tect foe­tuses from the ef­fects of ma­ter­nal stress. She hopes she may even be able to un­cover drugs that could re­verse th­ese mood dis­or­der ef­fects. Her re­search con­tin­ues.

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